LEARNING DIFFERENCES & DEVELOPMENTAL VARIATION
What are Learning Disabilities?
The term “Learning Disability” (LD) is a rather new addition to the medical, psychological, and educational vocabulary of western civilization. Coined in the 1970’s, this label was meant to describe certain students who had difficulty learning one or various subjects taught in school, despite normal intelligence and reasonably good emotional adjustment. While just about everyone agrees on this broad definition, precise diagnostic criteria have been hard to settle on. As a result, there remain various ways of diagnosing and defining Learning Disabilities.
For fifteen years, I worked and taught in the multidisciplinary clinics at Children’s Hospital evaluating youngsters for school difficulties. We used a model that employs developmental pediatricians, psychologists, and educational specialists working together as a team. Since 1996 I was the Associate Director of the Young Adult Team – the Middle & High School age division of those clinics. What follows reflects my own personal opinions & positions regarding LD & related topics based on the above experience. It does not necessarily represent the position of Children’s Hospital, YAT, or any other member of our staff.
LD’s are neurologically based – they are caused by poor “wiring” in the brain. They are usually something a child is born with for no reason, although they can sometimes run in families or be caused/exacerbated by other factors (see below).
LD’s are not related to maturity or motivation. A child will not simply “outgrow” an LD – it is not “developmental” in the sense that teachers or schools often use this word. Simply waiting or retaining a child in a repeated grade is seldom useful. Moreover, it is also not helpful to “blame the child” for his or her disability. They cannot be expected to overcome it through sheer effort alone. Younger LD children are usually very motivated. Older LD children who may have lost their motivation have done so specifically because they have become frustrated, discovering over and over again that simply trying harder does not help.
Learning Disabled children, regardless of their age, require a change in teaching technique to make the way a problem subject is being taught more closely match their “wiring” or “learning style”. Indeed, LD’s might be better thought of as a “mismatch” between learning and teaching styles. The child with an LD needs to be taught strategies for overcoming their area(s) of weakness – in other words, for “translating” an unfriendly teaching style into one which works better for them.